Cape May, New Jersey.
Natural infrastructure in Cape May, New Jersey. © Erika Nortemann/TNC

Policy

Water Resources Development Act

Modernizing America’s Water Management Strategies

Water resources development legislation is an opportunity for Congress to strengthen communities using nature-based solutions proven to lessen flood impacts, improve natural areas and support the economy.

Congress needs to complete work on water resources legislation to modernize water resources management at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps). Through nature-based approaches and cost-effective strategies, the Corps can deliver projects that protect America’s natural resources, support economic and recreational opportunities and enhance community resilience.

The Nature Conservancy, which has partnered extensively with the Corps to advance policies and projects that can effectively and efficiently deliver environmental benefits while meeting the needs of people, urges Congress to finalize important water resources legislation and sign it into law this year. 

Infographic of Cape May flood damage.
Nature-based solutions work Flood damage costs at Lower Cape May Meadows went from $143,713 before restoration to $3,713 after restoration. © The Nature Conservancy

Nature-Based Solutions at the Corps

The Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2016 was a landmark success for advancing natural infrastructure within the Corps. 

For the first time, Congress directed the Corps to consider natural and nature-based features, alone or in combination with gray infrastructure, when studying the feasibility of flood risk management, storm damage reduction and ecosystem restoration projects. WRDA 2018 reinforced the requirement to consider natural infrastructure during project design.

While the Corps has a clear obligation to consider natural infrastructure during project design, Congress still needs to take steps to promote greater use of natural infrastructure.

Nature—if fully utilized by the Corps and local communities— has the potential to help address water infrastructure challenges. For example, coastal wetlands prevented more than $625 million in property damages during Hurricane Sandy and reduced property damages throughout the Northeast by 10% on average. 

WRDA 2020: Policy Recommendations

TNC recommends that Congress do the following in WRDA 2020:

Advance natural infrastructure solutions. Oversee the Corps’ implementation of natural infrastructure requirements from previous WRDA legislation, including by studying instances of successful use of natural infrastructure in flood control and ecosystem restoration projects.

Enhance natural disaster response. Improve the Corps’ emergency response program by focusing more on pre-disaster preparedness and rebuilding better infrastructure following disasters. The Corps should make its repetitive loss data publicly available and identify—prior to a disaster—flood control works that can be rebuilt with local sponsors’ support to provide a greater level of flood protection and additional benefits.

Improve partnering options with the Corps. Modify project partnership agreements to fairly recognize the value of materials donated by local sponsors, give local sponsors certainty on their operations and maintenance responsibility and allow a more shared approach to liability with the Corps. Many good projects are not being pursued because of the difficulty of signing partnership agreements with the Corps.

An invasive silver carp is seen jumping out of the Missouri River, a tributary of the Mississippi River.
Asian carp An invasive silver carp is seen jumping out of the Missouri River, a tributary of the Mississippi River. © Chris Helzer/TNC

WRDA 2020: Project Recommendation

Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study – Brandon Road

While creation of the Chicago Area Waterway System opened the Chicago area to the economic benefits of barge traffic, it had the unintended consequence of allowing aquatic invasive species (AIS) to pass freely in both directions between the Mississippi River and Great Lakes basins. Twenty-nine invasive species already live in the Great Lakes, and 10 invasive species, including four species of Asian carp, live in the Mississippi River. The Corps released a plan—transmitted to Congress in a chief’s report—to reduce the risk of AIS moving from the Mississippi River through the Brandon Road Lock and Dam to the Great Lakes. The plan does not prevent the spread of AIS in the other direction—from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River. If Congress authorizes construction of the Brandon Road project, it should require the Corps to focus on studying and testing new solutions to prevent movement of AIS between basins and require the Corps to implement an adaptive management program that will incorporate future solutions to increase the efficacy of blocking AIS transfer.